[StBernard] Fingerprinting grant applicants criticized

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Thu Aug 10 22:56:18 EDT 2006

By Coleman Warner
Staff writer

A Louisiana contractor who is taking fingerprints and photos of homeowners
applying for Road Home program grants is drawing fire from some who believe
storm victims are being treated as potential suspects.

“None of the pilot program applicants whose picture and electronic
fingerprint were taken complained about the process,” said Carol
Hector-Harris, spokeswoman for ICF International, the company hired by the
state to counsel homeowners and calculate what kind of rebuilding or buyout
grants they should receive.

She called the process “minimally intrusive” and was backed by Louisiana
Division of Administration officials, who hired the company.

Division spokesman Jim Baronet said the procedure isn’t designed to
intimidate, just to ensure money goes to deserving people.

But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he has learned of complaints.

“Some citizens who went through the pilot expressed concerns,” he said.
“They said it made them feel like a criminal when they were just trying to
get help. One guy even said he was so taken aback that he asked them if they
‘wanted some blood also.’¤”

Keith Ashdown, vice president of a Washington D.C.-based group that has
railed against post-hurricane fraud, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the
procedure is “a little bit too much Department of Homeland Security” in its
feel. He said it will naturally repel people who associate fingerprinting
with criminal charges or special security clearances.
The contractor could accomplish the same goals by asking for multiple forms
of identification, Ashdown said. “There are times when Americans need to be
fingerprinted. This isn’t one of them.”

State Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, ridiculed the fingerprinting during a
legislative meeting Wednesday, joking at one point that officials should
consider the additional step of swabbing homeowners for DNA.

The identification requirement comes as ICF International is using a Baton
Rouge center to test procedures with 400 of more than 100,000 applicants for
the Road Home program. Backed by $7.5 billion in federal grants, the program
will reimburse homeowners for uninsured, uncompensated damages, with a
maximum grant of $150,000. Interviews with applicants will pick up after a
series of housing assistance centers are set up around the state in the next
few weeks, including one Aug. 22 in New Orleans.

In requiring pictures and fingerprinting, ICF International considered the
Louisiana Recovery Authority’s call for a broad anti-fraud program and the
hundreds of fraud investigations already launched by federal officials in
connection with hurricane-relief money, Hector-Harris said. The new photo
and electronic fingerprint “provides proof positive” that the person invited
to an assistance center and formally seeks benefits is who he says it is,
she said. The identification record will be matched with others when grants
are later disbursed, she added.

“Let’s assume a scenario in which half of 1 percent of 100,000 applicants
are hypothetically thinking about attempting to apply for benefits to which
they’re not entitled,” Hector-Harris said in a prepared statement. “If the
program can develop and institute a minimally intrusive technique such as
taking a photograph and electronic fingerprint, those 500 miscreants will
probably reconsider, turn around at the front door of the homeowner
assistance center and not pursue their fraudulent schemes.”

She said an electronic fingerprint is “required in several other states as
part of a valid notarization of documents in real estate and other
settings.” She didn’t name the states.

During the Wednesday meeting in Baton Rouge, Division of Administration
official Suzie Elkins said thumbprints are commonly used in business to
prevent fraud and that her own bank required one for deposits of more than
$500, according to press reports.

While the Recovery Authority is determined to prevent fraud, it hasn’t
determined if the fingerprinting and picture-taking feature will remain part
of the application process, said Virgil Robinson, chairman of the
authority’s Audit Committee. While there is good reasoning behind the idea,
the authority doesn’t want “a process that is going to be construed as being
intrusive or being overbearing.”

Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil
Liberties Union, called the fingerprinting “an indignity, disrespectful,”
and potentially intimidating. “People have waited now for a year to get some
relief from the government, and now the government is treating them like a
criminal suspect.”

Cook said “we don’t know where this information is going to end up” and that
some will fear the fingerprint and picture will be used in unrelated
government inquiries, or that it will increase the risk of identity theft.
But Baronet said the ID records will be reserved strictly for internal uses
in the Road Home program.

“No background checks are going to be given,” he said.

More information about the StBernard mailing list